The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

‘The Isle of Voices’ Manuscript

with 13 comments

The Rosenbach ‘Isle of Voices’ MS: Some Notes & Queries

by Bill Gray

The MS of ‘The Isle of Voices’ from the Rosenbach Museum, Philadelphia, has provided some interesting new readings and puzzles. Several of these are in deleted words or passages, so will only appear in the Notes to the EdRLS volume (Short Stories 4 – or Fables and Fairy Tales). These range from the amusing:

‘I can see cocoanuts’ (prompting Richard Dury to reply ‘I can see cocoanuts too!’), to the more challenging:

Being a landlubber I was quite pleased with myself for deciphering:

islands; and by a very good chance for Keola she had lost a man off the bowsprit
[when he was handing the flying jib] in a squall…

Not only flying jib but also the verb to hand are technical nautical terms.

Another nautical term still puzzles me however; when the mate shouts:

it’s not clear whether the correct term is romping (as in all previous editions) or ramping. The latter appears to be a nautical term, and seems to fit Stevenson’s handwriting, which is notoriously tricky. But I’m a landlubber. Any suggestions?

A couple of changes to the actual text of ‘The Isle of Voices’ in the EdRLS edition are, I think, more definitely required. Firstly, the reference to the wizard’s hunting ground looks more likely to be the wizard’s haunting ground:

–there seem too many ‘peaks’ for hunting, and haunting makes at least as much sense.

‘Peak counting’, as well as arguably better sense, suggest that in the following passage:

and hold his secret.”  With that he spoke to his wife Lehua,
and complained of her father’s ???.

Keola actually complains to his wife Lehua about her father’s meanness rather than his manners as it’s usually transcribed. Kalamake (with all his silver dollars) has after all just refused to give Keola the concertina he so desires.

A more fundamental change seems required in the sequence where Lehua unexpectedly turns up on the Isle of Voices to save Keola. As she fans the fire required to operate the magic mat, there is a question of which part of Keola’s anatomy gets scorched. Custom has it that it’s his hands, but a closer look at:

and the flame burned high, and scorched Keola’s ???

suggests that it’s actually his hams that are getting burned. RLS refers to Thorgunna ‘squatting on her hams’ at the end of ‘The Waif Woman’, which was written as a ‘companion piece’ to ‘The Isle of Voices’.  And anatomically it seems to make more sense.

Finally, in the following:

were wise; they wrought marvels, and this among the rest; but that was at
night, in the dark, under the ??? stars and in the desert.  The same will
I do here in my own house and under the plain eye of day.”

is it the fit stars (the usual transcription, though the meaning seems obscure), the fix stars or the first stars (my suggestion)?


13 Responses

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  1. If you’re going to entertain the idea of “fix stars”, why not “fixt” stars? The x is no less invisible, but the t remains, and “fixed stars” makes best sense.

    R L Abrahamson

    05/07/2012 at 8:51 pm

    • ‘Fixt stars’ fits very well in terms of meaning and is the kind of old-fashioned, rather arcane-sounding term that RLS might well have relished. And you’re right: if ‘first’, why not ‘fixt’?

      Bill Gray

      06/07/2012 at 7:52 am

      • RLS makes his ‘x’ like the one you write in algebra, with reverse-c and c together, often with the circuferences not touching and joined by the link-line only – in transcribing, we’ve often not identified this letter straight off. However, I haven’t seen a two-straight-intersecting-lines ‘x’, so this would seem to
        exclude ‘fix’ and ‘fixt’. (I’ve also never seen him use the 18C past morpheme alternative spellings i.e.-‘d or -t).


        15/07/2012 at 1:33 pm

      • The hand writing evidence seems to go against ‘fixt’; as does the point about RLS’s apparent (non)use of the 18C past morpheme alternative spellings i.e.-’d or –t.
        On the other hand, the phrase ‘fixt stars’ occurs at least 6 times in The Posthumous Works of Robert Hooke, Containing his Cutlerian Lectures and other Discourses, read at the Meetings of the Illustrious Royal Society … / London : [Richard Waller]; Printed by Sam. Smith and Benj. Walford, 1705—which appears in the list of books RLS owned, according to EdRLS: Stevenson’s Library Db. So even if RLS hadn’t come across ‘fixt stars’ in Locke and Newton (who both use the phrase) he would have come across it in Hooke.

        Bill Gray

        16/07/2012 at 9:48 am

  2. Tusitala edition has ‘ramping’, Edinburgh edition has ‘romping’. Ramp – in close-hauled sailing, to sail a vessel along a heavy full [when all the sails are filled with the wind and quite steady] without easing up the sheets. Ramping full – every sail bellying, full of wind – not too close-hauled [where the boat has been enabled to sail “against the wind”; “hard on the wind”; a point of sailing in which the sheets are hauled tight]. (all, Nautical Glossary by Mike Hembrey, online) I think the term may derive from the planing effect achieved at the optimum point of sailing (a ramp being a sloping or inclined plane). Keola is ordered to keep this point of sailing to avoid the shore which is ‘steep-to’ (precipitous, or iron-bound coast); it’s a lee shore, so he has to keep working at it constantly to avoid being swept on to it.

    Neil Brown

    15/07/2012 at 12:47 pm

    • This is interesting, because it suggests a possibility that the MS was re-transcribed some time after its first publication – a possibility that should be easy to exclude if all the other mistakes remain through all the editions. If this is the case, then ‘romping > ramping’ would be a conjectural emendation just based on the more likely reading without reference to the MS.
      (Speedboats move forward, I think, while ‘tramping’ – leaving and returning to the water, which might be related and the sort of thing a light boat might do under full sail.)


      15/07/2012 at 1:45 pm

    • Many thanks for this; I clearly hadn’t checked the Tusitala edition. Mea culpa. Looks like ‘ramping’ is the one—which does open up interesting possibilities, as Richard points out.

      Bill Gray

      16/07/2012 at 9:31 am

      • This is interesting. I think I had the impression that the Edinburgh Ed was the source text for all the subsequent editions in the early 20th century. It would be nice to create some kind of family tree showing how different texts were passed on through various editions.

        R L Abrahamson

        16/07/2012 at 10:40 am

  3. ‘fit’ – befitting or becoming in the sense of the stars appropriateness to night in the desert

    Neil Brown

    15/07/2012 at 1:25 pm

    • Meant to add that ‘fit stars’ appears in Coleridge: “A Day Dream” – ‘A glow-worm fallen, and on the marge remounting / Shines and its shadow shines, fit stars for our sweet fountain.

      Neil Brown

      16/07/2012 at 2:36 pm

    • Yes, the context does seem to make ‘first’ less likely than ‘fit’: “they wrought marvels, […] ; but that was at night, in the dark, under the fit stars and in the desert.” – “at night, in the dark… and in the desert” contain no idea of change, while “under the first stars” would suddenly introduce the idea of a passing moment at the beginning of night.

      “under the fit stars” – this may be intended just as a hint of an idiomatic phrase from another language/culture that one is never going to fully understand – a reminder that the person talking is speaking another language, and an ecouragement to the reader to try and dig up the buried meaning (as RLS puts it in ‘Lay Morals’). I could see ‘fit’ as a respectful epithetic given to something immense and mysterious – something like ‘right’, ‘just’, ‘there-as-they-should-be’.


      17/07/2012 at 5:48 am

  4. ‘and overhead the heartsome stars were set in the face of the night. No one knows the stars who has not slept, as the French happily put it, “a la belle etoile”.’ (Travels with a Donkey) Continues: ‘He may know all their names and distances and magnitudes, and yet be ignorant of what alone concerns mankind, – their serene and gladsome influence on the human mind. The greater part of poetry is about the stars; …’

    Neil Brown

    17/07/2012 at 10:19 am

  5. ‘The stars alone … by their double scale, so small to the eye, so vast to the imagination, they keep before the mind the double character of man’s nature and fate.’ (Prince Otto)

    Neil Brown

    17/07/2012 at 10:22 am

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